2012-04-13 / Front Page

A rumor no more: another Wal-Mart in store

Company revealed as new tenant in former Mervyns building
By Carissa Marsh

The rumors are true: Wal-Mart is taking over the old Mervyns building.

Since the beginning of the year there has been speculation that the retail giant would open a second location in Simi Valley, but city staff could not or would not confirm.

But on Monday, City Councilmember Glen Becerra let the cat out of the bag.

“I’m thrilled that we have a tenant coming to go into that building. The tenant that is coming in, it’s kind of the joke of the city that we’re not talking about it but everybody seems to know who it is,” he said.

The councilman went on to say that the occupier of the 78,000- square- foot space at 2801 Cochran Street, which has been empty for more than three years, would be a “major tenant” in town and that he had heard a lot of concern from residents about who they believed that tenant to be.

Then, Becerra finally gave up the goods.

“ I’m just going to say it, what’s proposed to go in there is Wal-Mart,” he said.

Assistant City Manager Brian Gabler, the director of economic development for the city, was previously not at liberty to disclose the name of the business going into the building and would only say it was a retail operation.

Even with Becerra’s admission, Gabler said he had limited information to provide other than that Wal-Mart is planning to open one of its smaller-format stores called Wal-Mart Express.

“Wal-Mart has a couple of different concepts they are rolling out. One is a Wal-Mart Express, it has full-line grocery as well as non-grocery product,” he said.

Becerra said he doesn’t have any issue with Wal-Mart and that he is not looking to stop the business from moving into the Mervyns building. In this fragile economy, he said the city needs to be job friendly and promote growth.

Still, the councilman does have some misgivings.

The reason he brought up the project is that April 9 was the last day for the planning commission to appeal the tenant plans so that commission could have a chance to review the project.

Because the level of improvements Wal-Mart will be making to the building is minor—such as changes to the façade, paint, landscaping and lighting—the plans don’t have to be approved by the commission.

“The changes that they are making to the building are such that staff has the authority to approve them administratively,” Gabler said.

Planning division staff approved Wal-Mart’s plans March 26, Gabler said. Because of the major corporation coming in and the deteriorated state of the 36-year-old building, Becerra’s planning commissioner, Mary Bibb, felt the commission should have some say and tried to appeal city staff’s approval, but she was unable to get a second commissioner to join her appeal as required.

Though there is nothing the city can do now, Becerra is worried Simi Valley is not getting the best project it could have gotten.

“That building is going to get a fresh coat of paint, it’s going to have the wood taken off of it and not a lot (else) is going to be done there and I think we miss an opportunity to really get that building freshened up in a big way considering the user coming in there,” Becerra told his council colleagues Monday. “They really could have done something substantial.”

Becerra said he understands that the vacant building is zoned commercial and that Wal-Mart is an appropriate, allowable use. But he said having the planning commission review the company’s plans, even if ultimately no changes were proposed, would have at least given concerned residents some reassurance that the city did all it could to deliver a quality project.

“It’s a big use. I’m excited about the jobs that will come and be provided but I want to make sure that the public knows the process that it goes through— what’s allowed, what’s not allowed, how it gets approved—so they understand we’re not asleep at the wheel, we’re watching this stuff and we care about what goes on in our town,” he said.

While Becerra feels Wal-Mart is not planning enough improvements to the former Mervyns building, Gabler stressed that Wal-Mart didn’t need any approval to move into the space.

“Wal-Mart is doing significant improvements to the exterior of the building as well as the parking lot. That being said, in the commercial districts and most retail spaces in the city there are generally no zoning permits or permits to operate that are necessary for a business to move into a particular space,” he explained. “Wal-Mart could have moved into the Mervyns building and put their name on the outside and began to operate.”

In addition to aesthetic concerns, Becerra admitted he is just not sure Simi Valley is a two Wal-Mart town.

But Gabler said the free market will decide Wal-Mart’s success.

“(Wal-Mart Express) provides residents the ability to buy their grocery and non-grocery items in one place, to do their comprehensive shopping at one location,” he said. “Residents can choose to shop there or use other options that are provided in the community . . . Whether Wal-Mart is successful or not is yet to be determined.”

Following Monday’s council meeting, Councilmember Mike Judge posted on the Acorn’s Facebook page that if Simi Valley can support two Macy’s, two Targets and four Del Tacos, then perhaps it can support multiple Wal-Mart stores.

“I’ve lived in this town my whole life. I’ve seen all kinds of business come and go. I do believe there is room for everyone to compete in this town,” Judge said. “And if the citizens of Simi Valley get more choices and lower prices, I see that as a win-win.”

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